As you’re all well aware, the world lost two cinematic legends this past week: Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall. The latter was eighty-nine and died of natural causes. Though no less talented, her death was perhaps less tragic. Every movie site worth their salt has been covering or commemorating them in some way, and you surely don’t need me to tell you to feel sad. Hey, death is sad. You know what isn’t sad?
In 1969, a young Alan Parrish (some kid, later Robin Williams) gets sucked into a magical board game named Jumanji, which dispels horrors from the jungle upon the unsuspecting players of the game every turn. Twenty-six years later, two recently orphaned children, Judy (Kirsten Dunst) and Peter (Bradley Pierce) rediscover Jumanji, conjuring both jungle terrors and an aged Alan Parrish. The three of them team up with Alan’s childhood friend Sarah (Bonnie Hunt) to play the game and undo the mischief it’s managed, whilst simultaneously attempting to survive the increasingly dangerous challenges from the game, including carnivorous plants, giant mosquitos, lions, rhinos, crocodiles, monkeys, and a gun-happy Victorian hunter (Jonathan Hyde).
This is definitely one of my favorite Robin Williams films. Not only do I consider a childhood classic, but it has aged incredibly well. I still laugh in all the same places, and the adventure is just as riveting. What I noticed this time around that I just took for granted before is the true sense of heart this movie possesses. Amidst the humor and fantasy is a story about realistic human relationships between a number of deep, likable people. This is especially impressive coming from a movie about a magical board game that tries to kill people with jungle animals. A young Kirsten Dunst is always fun to watch. I forget sometimes what a talented child actress she was. Bonnie Hunt’s delivery is similarly on-point. Unsurprisingly, though, the film is dominated by Robin Williams. He covers a wide range emotions, from funny and wild to calm and disturbed. While this might not offer a clear vision of what it would be like for a boy to grow up in the jungle, this does seem exactly like what it be like if Robin Williams grew up in the jungle. Alan is an interesting mix of emotionally immature and borderline PTS. This complexity is something that a lesser actor, especially a lesser comedian, wouldn’t have bothered with.
Just a little while ago I said Jumanji is not a sad movie. That’s true, but it does have some sad stuff in it. A lot of the movie has to do with loss and learning to let go, which, again, is unexpected for a movie about a killer board game. What’s more unlikely is the fact that Jumanji pulls it off. Once again, and I’m veering into redundancy here, but it’s mostly due to Robin Williams. Other people do their share, of course. Director Joe Johnston, despite his Oscar-winning background in special visual effects, doesn’t get too bogged down in the spectacle of it all. He works with Williams to create a few perfect emotional moments. My favorite one being Alan’s return after twenty-six year in the wild, fully expecting his parents to be waiting for him. His gleeful run around the house, his triumphant screams that he’s finally returned, and his steady realization that his parents are long dead are all reasons why Robin Williams was so great: even in silly roles, he understood the intricacies of humanity, as all good comedians and actors should.
I promised a double feature, though. Now that I’ve steered the focus towards some of the more emotional stuff:
The Plot: Dr. Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams) has just developed a new drug that he believes will revive the catatonic patients of a terrible encephalitis epidemic. He selects the decades-comatose Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro) as a test patient and begins his experiments. After several weeks, Leonard begins to improve, becoming alive and active for the first time in many years. Sayer develops a deep friendship with Leonard and introduces him to all the joys life has to offer. But, as they say, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, and because this isn’t exactly the feel good movie of 1990, it’s not long before some unfortunate side effects threaten to spell tragedy for both Malcolm and Leonard.
This is a sad movie. A very sad movie. (Spoiler through literary reference alert) It’s basically Flowers for Algernon but sadder. Here Williams plays a serious, dramatic role alongside an actor who at the time was one of the most respected dramatic actors in Hollywood. Essentially he was coming off of Mork and Mindy and Dead Poets Society and going up against Taxi Driver, The Godfather II, The Deer Hunter, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy and a whole bunch of similar Academy darlings, and he absolutely delivers. Serious Williams can be hit-or-miss, but occasionally you’ll get a Good Will Hunting or an Awakenings and you remember why you loved him in the first place. Awakenings is one of his best serious performances because he approaches it with humor and heart. I love this movie, but unlike Jumanji, I couldn’t bring myself to revisit it for this article. I figured it’d be too harrowing an experience. Someday, maybe when Robert De Niro dies, too.
In the meantime, I’ve still never seen Mrs. Doubtfire, an offense I plan on rectifying as soon as I can, possibly tomorrow.